Are Energy Drinks Addictive to Kids?

Woman drinking energy drink by the computer
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Are energy drinks addictive, or do they have other harmful side effects? As energy drinks continue to enjoy popularity, consumers don't know whether these beverages, associated with sports and an active lifestyle, are good or bad for them. And with many energy drinks marketed to children, parents wonder whether they are part of a healthy lifestyle for kids.

Ingredients of Energy Drinks

The ingredients of energy drinks vary a great deal from one brand to another, but many of them contain potentially harmful substances, such as caffeine, taurine, sugars, sweeteners, and herbal supplements.

Although energy drinks are easily confused with sports drinks and vitamin waters, they are actually quite distinct in that sports drinks and vitamin waters may be suitable for rehydration, whereas energy drinks are not.

Some of the ingredients in energy drinks carry potential health risks and are not regulated. These beverages typically provide little to no health benefits and can cause drug interactions.

The main psychoactive ingredient in energy drinks is caffeine, typically containing from three to five times the amount contained in cola drinks, with the highest concentrations found in "energy shots." Caffeine is a stimulant of the central nervous system, which has effects on the brain that make you feel more alert by blocking the neuron messaging system that tells your brain you are tired. While many people find the effects of caffeine pleasantly refreshing, for some, it can induce anxiety, nausea, and other unpleasant side effects.

Consumption of Energy Drinks by Kids

Kids are consuming more and more caffeine in the form of soda and energy drinks. The average caffeine consumption of teens in the U.S. is 60-70 mg per day, but it can be as high as 800 mg per day. About a third of American teens and half of college students regularly consume energy drinks.

Many caffeinated beverages, including energy drinks, are deliberately marketed to kids and teens. The reputation of the product Red Bull as a beverage for young party-goers and sports enthusiasts was key to fueling energy drinks' international popularity when they were introduced in Austria in 1987. Other energy drink brands would later push this risk-taking theme even further. For example, one brand named their energy drink Cocaine and advertised it with phrases like "speed in a can," "liquid cocaine," and "legal drug."

Alcoholic energy drinks are particularly concerning as a commodity marketed to risk-taking youth.

In this context, energy drinks can sometimes be associated with greater substance use. Research shows adolescents who consume energy drinks on a daily basis are more likely to use alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and amphetamines. Some experts theorize that energy drinks pave the way to experimentation with substances. However, it is also possible that adolescents who abuse substances are more likely to use energy drinks.

Health Risks

There are a number of health risks associated with energy drinks, including:

  • Caffeine intoxication
  • Caffeine withdrawal symptoms, including headaches
  • Caffeine overdose, which can be life-threatening
  • Cardiovascular problems
  • Raised blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Sleep disorders
  • Calcium deficiency
  • Dental problems
  • Increased postprandial hyperglycemia, particularly concerning for people with diabetes
  • Electrolyte disorders, particularly concerning for people with eating disorders

Possible Drug Interactions

In addition, there is a risk of drug interactions when energy drinks are combined with:

  • Medications for ADD/ADHD
  • Antidepressant medications, including MAOIs and SSRIs
  • Over-the-counter painkillers, which can contain caffeine

Safe Limits to Energy Drink Consumption in Kids

As a psychoactive drug, it would not be appropriate to consider any consumption of caffeine by children or teens to be "safe." A better way to think about it is to limit kids' daily caffeine intake to below 2.5 mg per kg of body weight for children, and 100 mg per day for teens.

And remember, energy drinks typically contain a lot of sugar, which can also cause problems when consumed in excess. High levels of daily sugar consumption in childhood has been linked to violence later in life, independent of a child's socioeconomic status and psychological health. Plus, many scientists believe sugar can be addictive. Sugar addiction is just one type of food addiction that can continue into adulthood and could be a major contributor to obesity in some individuals.

Remember that many everyday foods and drinks contain caffeine, and these should be included in your daily consumption calculations.

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